Friday, September 28, 2012

Data share

A cautionary tale about what can be inadvertently reveal when you participate on social networks. Data mining means nothing is hidden and there are clues everywhere to your life, personality and motivation. What about people who do not participate at all? I wonder if recruiters mind if nothing can be found out about potential hires?

End of days

A suggestion that the slowdown in the US economy may not be down to the financial crisis etc but might be caused by a slow down in innovations. Hmm. I'm no expert but it does have a whiff of "leave the bankers alone" about it. There are some good criticisms of it in the piece too. I'm interested because of other reports I've seen about the limits to growth and what that might mean for society.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Hell hath

sounds to drive you mad. According to David Toop. Though, if I've got a pitchfork in my vitals the ambient sounds are not going to be top of my list of annoyances.

Calbrate that

No-one was in any doubt that putting a car-sized rover on Mars was hard and that it took a lot of complicated engineering to do it. But this story shows just how complicated Curiosity is, even the tracks it tyres leaves help its mission. They are a visual cue and clue that helps work out how far it has gone.  Oh, and spell out JPL in Morse code.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Too far

Fox tossing is an example of how distant, culturally, we are from ancient days. But there are also hints of how close we are to those times too. This shows that even back in the 16th century astrology had its nay sayers. The book, Assertionis fidei adversus astrologos, points out that the celestial firmament is a long way away so, y'know, unlikely to influence mere mortals pottering about on Earth. Just saying.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Society and psychology

A useful summary of the history of care and medication that schizophrenics have received plus some suggestions about other ways that it can be alleviated. I think I've read of similar things about American soldiers returning home after a stint in Vietnam. Many were dedicated drug takers while on their tour but the stable home life, even though drugs were just as easy to acquire back home, meant that many could easily shrug off that habit.

Moral maze

We are going to be so boned when we meet an alien intelligence that can out-think us at every turn and prey on our weaknesses. Is anyone preparing for this moment? Or are we destined to be the pet of a benevolent master race?

Vulpes velocity

There are times when I think that people have been much the same throughout history but with different clothes and standards of hygiene. Then I read about something like "fox tossing" and realise that I am very much mistaken. As Ptak notes, one famous fox tossing session in Dresden resulted in the deaths of 687 foxes. How long did it take to catch all those foxes? Was there a plague of them that needed controlling?

Thursday, September 20, 2012

High dead

I've often thought about this but never in so much detail as this document. It details the "grim business" of what to do with all the dead bodies caused by a nuclear attack. Its deadpan language is a treat.
For the first few hours after a nuclear bomb disaster, there will be little time for attention to the dead. 
 I'm happy I found it just because of the site that is hosting it -

Hunt the rodent

I really want to believe this story in McSweeney about the vast numbers of giant gerbils that are laying waste to huge swathes of China. There are so many that China is thinking about using lots of eagles to control the population. Just writing those two lines has made me even more sceptical.There's a great discussion about this on Metafilter too.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Buy this, but it now

How we are tricked by stores, restaurants and websites into spending more than we want to. It does make me think that when the aliens land we are going to be at such a disadvantage because they will exploit all our weaknesses to manipulate us into doing what they want.

Neat work and networks

A good round-up of Steven Johnson's new book. I'm keen to read it because it touches on the themes I'm interested in - namely, what the heck is going to happen to us now we've got all this network stuff.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Taking orders

These menus that date from the 1850s/60s are from the US but some are from steamboats so I'm prepared to over look that.

Moral laws

From "A Wayside Comedy" by Rudyard Kipling a story first published in 1888. "You must remember, though you will not understand, that all laws weaken in a small and hidden community where there is no public opinion. When a man is absolutely alone in a Station he runs a certain risk of falling into evil ways. This risk is multiplied by  every addition to the population up to twelve -- the Jury number. After that, fear and consequent restraint begin, and human action becomes less grotesquely jerky."

Killing it

A very strange story about how singing My Way in a karaoke bar in the Philippines can get you killed. Gives a whole new meaning to "Tough crowd".

Which Krull?

For a moment I thought mathematics was even stranger (and geekier) than I had imagined as I came across a Krull dimension. Is the name derived from the really rather rubbish 1983 movie Krull? No, it is not. Instead, it is a term from commutative algebra and is one which need not be finite even for a Noetherian ring. So that clears that up.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Titfer tat

I do not use an umbrella, I find the gamp to be a very unsympathetic object. I have developed a prejudice against them as I am quite tall which means that when it rains I constantly have to bob my head like a pigeon to avoid being jabbed in the eye by the pointed end of a spoke.

Also I am vaguely unsettled by their arms - there are too many of them and they have too many joints - and by the leathery sound of the shroud when they are flapped dry. There is too much of a distressed bird about it. In addition, they are hard to fold tightly and keep neat. When using one in a high wind there is the attendant danger of looking foolish as the umbrella is blown inside out. No-one can look elegant tangling with an umbrella or chasing one down the street. 

While there is no sympathy for those splashing after a bowling umbrella, there is for anyone who loses their titfer to a strong gust. For that reason I cover my head with a hat during inclement weather. Nothing outre, just a non-descript baseball cap.

In recent weeks my usual hat has been retired in favour of a new one. I was reluctant to swap as the old one and I have been through a lot together and we have grown used to each other. Like many men I prefer clothes that I have grown into and have adapted to my shape and often wear them in preference to anything smarter.

But that old hat was showing its age. The cloth on the lip of its bill was fraying, around its upper slopes was the ragged circle of a tidal sweat mark and the metal logo of its maker had acquired a greenish tinge reminiscent of verdigris. It never lay flat, smelled when damp and was in sore need of a wash.

The hat's prime virtue was that it was impossible to lose. So many times I was convinced it was lost only for it to turn up in a bag, a pocket or beneath a car seat after an absence of days or weeks. Every time I was happy to see it and missed it when it was gone.

During one of those times when it was adventuring on its own I bought another hat to help protect my head during one of the many, many downpours of 2012. Necessity made me use it but it I never felt happy underneath it as it never seemed to lose its shop-fresh stiffness. It made no concessions to my head and seemed intent on keeping its own shape rather than adapting to mine.

Perhaps it picked up on these feelings because that hat has proved almost impossible to keep. Time after time I've had to dash back on to a train, into a shop or scour the house to find it. Rarely was it where I thought I had left it, a situation that only made me resent it more. It was never in my bag, or so it seemed, even when I was sure that was where I had left it. Every time I left the house with it I was sure this would be the time it would escape and every time it came back with me often with me nursing a slight resentment as I had been forced to retrieve it. Again.

Well, that hat has now got the better of me because it is gone. I am sure I left it on a train and it is now sitting with other discarded headgear in a locker somewhere. It may be harsh to say so but I am glad it is gone because it means I can wear my old hat with a happy heart. With autumn and winter coming on I'm sure we'll be spending a lot more time together.

Monday, September 03, 2012

Rodent gods

The mourning crow I saw in St James Park got me thinking more seriously about the superstitions and religious practices of animals. There's now some evidence, among western scrub jays at least, that they hold funerals (of a kind) for dead birds. at the very least they gather when one has fallen and the first one that attends the scene calls to others to witness the body. The behaviour seems counter adaptive because whatever killed that first jay may still be around and happy to kill any more than turn up.

Then I heard about some of the work BF Skinner did with pigeons that suggested that they can be made to exhibit superstitious behaviour. The methodology used to expose this was a bit cruel (but it's Skinner so maybe that's to be expected) in that he arbitrarily changed when the pigeons were going to be fed and found that they repeated the behaviour from the last time they had been fed. Skinner knew that had no effect on feeding times but the pigeons didn't and soon they were doing the behaviour regularly.

I'm not sure why but I'm more interested in rituals, superstitions and worship among smaller creatures rather than the bigger ones. Mice, in particular. Do mice have any religious beliefs. Mice gods are not entirely unknown among humans. There's Apollo Smintheus (a temple to it exsts on Tenedos), a mice god whose cult flourished for a few thousand years. The other, Kroncha, used to ferry the god Ganesha around. It wasn't really mouse-sized though and started out as big as a mountain.

But I'm more interested in the real superstitions of mice. Like pigeons, they do have them as this write-up shows. It's similar work to Skinner's on pigeons. Though there is a lot of humanocentric projection going on in the work (it seems to me). I wonder what use this would be in the wild. I guess its the beginnings of higher brain functions as they can let their memories over-ride instinct. That seems counter-evolutionary as they it means they may make more mistakes. But that's just one of the curses of being smart, it doesn't make you right more often but it does mean you can be wrong for more complicated reasons.

So mice can have superstitions which leads to them being deluded about the world and opens the door for deities. Plus everything wants to kill them so they must feel pretty persecuted and want to call on supernatural aid regularly.

My guess is that mice, being small and quick would worship something insubstantial and dark. A being that was too quick for cats, that was always ahead of a swiping paw or faster than the snap of a trap could fall. What do mice like to do? Nibble, eat and make little mice. Pretty much. So their god would excel at all those things. Perhaps the crumbs that dropped from its snout would turn into baby mice to keep the species going. Mice are frenetic, fast and scared. They are all about getting away with it. Slipping through the cracks. Finding the crumbs. Surviving. I'm not sure if it would have a name though, unless it was the squeak a mouse makes when it dies. Not with a bang, or a whimper but a hypersonic call for help.